By Austin Jacobs
The accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels begin with John the Baptist exercising considerable humility as he prepares the way for Jesus. Looking closely at John’s Gospel, we can see that Jesus also exercises humility and accessibility as he is revealed as the Son of God.
Identifying himself as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” John the Baptist provides an example of how we, too, might bear witness to Christ with proper humility.
In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist recognizes Jesus’ superiority and tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized by him. We can almost hear the incredulity in John’s voice when, upon seeing Jesus, he says, “I have need to be baptized by You, and You come to me?”
Likewise, in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist sees Jesus and declares, “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’”
In the Gospels of Matthew and John, the two authors recount God’s sign of approval and presence with Jesus when the Spirit descends upon him at his baptism. This “divine endorsement” from on high demonstrates that humility in bearing witness to Christ can and should be accompanied by confidence that he is who he says he is.
When the Spirit descends at Jesus’ baptism in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus receives a revelation about his identity that informs and empowers his subsequent ministry.
“And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove coming upon Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17).
A curious divergence in perspective between these two Gospel accounts shows that those who bear witness to Christ with humility can also do so with confidence. Like Matthew’s account, John’s Gospel presents God’s revelatory gesture of approval of Jesus. However, the event is recounted from an alternate perspective. Consider the difference:
“And John bore witness saying, ‘I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God’” (John 1:32, 34).
The descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism signals Jesus’ identity not only to Jesus himself, but also to John the Baptist. As a result, John’s proper humility can stand alongside a proper confidence in Jesus’ identity.
The account of Jesus’ baptism in John’s Gospel is important not least because it occurs publicly. Prior to the Spirit’s descent, John the Baptist says (twice), “I did not recognize [Jesus]” (vv. 31, 33). In other words, John the Baptist needed confirmation of Jesus’ identity.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ baptism reveals him not only as the “Lamb of God” (v. 29) and “Son of God” (v. 34), but also as one who makes himself available to meet others’ needs. Luke Timothy Johnson says it this way:
“Because he is defined above all by obedience to the will of God, and that will is disclosed moment by moment in the needs of others, Jesus is free to respond to others with the poverty of accessibility. Jesus’ ‘meekness’ and ‘lowliness’ are not a matter of self-suppression, but a matter of self-giving without regard to self.”
As Jesus receives a revelation of God’s approval (Matthew’s Gospel), he also shares that revelation of himself with others (John’s Gospel). Time and again, the Gospels confront us with Jesus’ humility and self-disclosure. John’s Gospel allows us to see these traits from the beginning—traits that will later lend support to the truth of Jesus’ words to his disciples:
“No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:5).